Talking Movies

June 9, 2019

Notes on X-Men: Dark Phoenix

The last chapter in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men saga was the film of the week today in a return to Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

This is the way the X-world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Simon Kinberg first arrived as X-screenwriter with the awful X-3, and now he rehashes X-3 as X-writer/director and makes it even worse, which is perversely impressive. X-3 has some rather nice music from John Powell, strong acting even in minor roles, and a number of upsetting moments (that were doubly upsetting for how badly Brett Ratner handled them) that leaned on the good work of the first two movies. This movie has A-list composer Hans Zimmer only occasionally elevating the material with emotive minimalism, some of the worst acting outside of X-Men: Origins – Wolverine, and absolutely no memorable moments whatsoever in part because there has been no good work done in previous movies to establish anything. Cyclops was killed off 20 minutes into X-3 by Jean Grey to establish she was out of control, and here Mystique is killed off 40 minutes in by Jean Grey to establish she is out of control. Kinberg shamelessly reuses dialogue and the ideas of X-3, but doubles down on them to make what was once annoying now insufferable.

Prior to her merciful death Mystique spends her screentime whingeing about Professor X, after she dies Beast takes up the whingeing baton to the point where you just want to shout at the screen “Why don’t you just move out of the mansion you’ve been living in rent-free for 30 years if you feel that strongly about him being a bad man?” Professor X is the villain of this piece. Somehow. I’m not nearly as sure as Kinberg is that hiding from a girl, who just murdered her mother because she wouldn’t stop listening to Glen Campbell, that her father regards her as a monster and wants nothing to do with her is a morally evil act. How does he think Jean would react to hearing that? Badly? Would she kill many people in her rage? Oh, the rage. In a scene where Jean is moody at a bar one longs for Sarah Snook in this role as Sophie Turner renders Jean Grey’s transformation into Dark Phoenix the temper tantrums of a petulant teenager. Jessica Chastain barely acts as the emotionless alien Vuk, and Jennifer Lawrence projects only deep boredom.

J-Law may be the audience avatar in that respect, fed up so much talent could be squandered on a twice-told tale. Kinberg has Christopher Nolan’s regular editor and composer, and yet there is a cut with the X-jet arriving and the team appearing as jarring as the scene John Ottman apologised for in Bohemian Rhapsody. The cinematographer of Avatar is on hand to, well, hide the action under cover of darkness and big swirly CGI. Watching X-Men and X-2 in recent days they really are films of the 1990s rather than the 2000s with their emphasis on practical effects to which CGI is added; a quaint notion long abandoned by Marvel and DC films that superpowers are more impressive interacting with tangible physical reality rather than being a welter of CGI battling a big swirly thing of CGI in a CGI landscape populated by CGI extras. There is some pleasing practicality here, but this is not a movie to stand beside Guy Hendrix Dyas’ amazing sets for X-2. And let’s remember the big swirly thing CGI that reached its nadir in X-Men: Apocalypse began in X-3 for Dark Phoenix’s powers.

Kinberg reprises it here in another display of creative bankruptcy. What exactly is the point of filming the Phoenix storyline? To plonk an actress down in mauve garb to stare moodily/blankly at everything for two hours while everyone stands around agonising over killing her while repeating that she’s unstoppably powerful and therefore can’t be killed unless she wishes it? Does that sound at all interesting? At this point it seems safe to say that the writing credits strongly suggest that the only X-screenwriters worth a damn were David Hayter, Zak Penn, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman, and everyone else was just coasting off their story ideas. It seems perilously close to the truth to say that, as set up by Bryan Singer’s original decisions, these films rarely worked without Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – the best of the bunch were X-Men, X-2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Maybe the reason for X-Men: First Class succeeding was that the charismatic turn by Michael Fassbender as vengeful hot-headed Magneto stood in for Wolverine. This is a terrible way for the X-Men to end given that they started the Marvel era.

It’s especially bad given that Disney will fold them into the MCU and a Marvel executive seems to think the signal problem with the X-Men was not their farrago of continuity, their revolving door of writers and directors, their recycling of the same stories, their failure to properly establish characters, their over-reliance on one actor, their ever-escalating budgets, their out of control CGI, their limited palette of character motivations and plots, but the fact that they were called the X-Men.

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September 26, 2018

From the Archives: Taken

Ten years ago today Taken was released in Ireland.

Liam Neeson admitted that he only took this part because at 56 he didn’t expect to be offered an action role again, from such inauspicious beginnings comes an unexpected joy as Neeson has the time of his life in Taken as effectively he gets to play Jack Bauer at age 56.

His operative secret agent (or “preventer” as he describes himself, think CTU…) has retired to spend more time with his estranged daughter. She is living with her aggravatingly wealthy stepfather Xander Berkeley (yes, that’s right Jack Bauer’s boss George Mason in 24) and Neeson’s bitter ex-wife Famke Janssen, a thankless role which is becoming so prevalent that someone really needs to have a character riposte “Well, if you’re ex is that much of a loser, it doesn’t say much about you that you married them, does it?” to get rid of it. LOST’s Maggie Grace plays Jack’s daughter Kim. Yes that’s right, French writer/producer Luc Besson has brilliantly pre-empted the planned 24 movie to the extent of having a permanently in peril daughter Kim. Kim travels to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) and, Kims being Kims, they get kidnapped by a gang trafficking in sex slaves. It’s worth sighing at this point that both actresses are far too old for their roles and ‘act young’ by jumping around a lot and screaming, which is not much of a stretch for Grace it must be admitted but is quite disappointing from Cassidy given her very cool role as a taciturn demon on Supernatural.

Neeson, as you might have seen from the absurd trailer, talks Kim through her kidnap and threatens the kidnappers before they hang up on him. He jets over, courtesy of the private plane belonging to Berkeley’s wealthy businessman, and gets medieval on the kidnappers. This isn’t “ooh look at our fancy fight choreography” fighting, this is down and dirty “how many punches, jabs and kicks do I really need to give in order to cripple this person?” fighting and bone-crunchingly realistic it looks too. This is the adrenaline rush that 24 provided before it got ridiculous. Neeson is superbly cast for this, his 6, 4” frame dominating any room he walks into, while his boxing past makes his fight scenes more plausible than is usual in a Besson produced action flick. Neeson finds the gang holding his daughter through a mix of dogged detective work, old contacts (including a mentor who features in a scene outrageously lifted directly by Besson from Day 5 of 24), old fashioned brutality and yes, you guessed it, one very nasty torture scene involving a lecture by Neeson on the joys of a constant supply of electricity when trying to beat confessions out of bad guys. Besson sure knows his 24… By the end of this film you feel sure that Neeson has killed or maimed half the Parisian underworld and, quelle surprise, the big bad turns out to be an evil Arab.

If one wanted to gripe about all this one could say that Pierre Morel’s film endorses the sort of pop-fascism espoused by 24 but analysing the politics of this nonsense would really be pushing it. This is not high art. What it is is gripping, plausible, brutal and ultimately awesome fun. Highly recommended.

4/5

January 7, 2015

Taken 3

Liam Neeson returns for a final instalment of Besson nonsense; outrunning cop Forest Whitaker to escape a bogus murder rap by finding the real perpetrator.

tak3n-gallery2-gallery-imageTaken 3 begins with Eurotrash criminals Oleg (Sam Spruell) and Maxim (Andrew Howard) delivering a chilling message to a business partner who owes them money. Meanwhile Bryan Mills (Neeson) is once again earnestly buying an inappropriate birthday present for daughter Kim (Maggie Grace); a giant panda. Ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) confides in Bryan that her marriage to millionaire Stuart (Dougray Scott) is nearly at an end, despite much couples therapy, and a desperate Stuart then visits Bryan to beg him to not see Lenore anymore to give him a chance at salvaging the marriage. Bryan honourably agrees, but has already given Lenore his keys in case she wants some me time while he joins Sam (Leland Orser) on an out of town job. Det. Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) finds the key to be damning evidence when he starts investigating Lenore’s murder…

It’s over 6 years since I gave Taken a 4/5 review, enthused by its brutal fun riff on 24. Taken 3 is a very different kettle of fish, afflicted by many of the problems of Taken 2. The PG-13 neutering hurts immensely. Lenore’s neck wound looks barely painful let alone fatal, a man blows his head off with no blood splatter, and a shirtless man is shot in the abdomen twice; with no blood… Olivier Megaton has handled PG-13 action entertainingly in Colombiana and Transporter 3, but the absurdity of toning down Pierre Morel’s original R vision of this franchise seems to unnerve him; even the harder cut of Taken 2 saw action director Megaton fail as a director of action. Time and again Megaton films a set-up well, but then bungles the pay-off in a flail of incomprehensible editing.

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen’s script is very awkward. The panda shows Bryan having learnt nothing since the first film’s first scene, Kim deflecting her surprise pregnancy into a conversation about a puppy is excruciatingly ham-fisted, and the first act’s lengthy inanity makes you long for Taken’s efficiency. Whitaker, despite being lumbered with a chess knight, elastic band, and bagels as props masquerading as character traits, is on good form. Scott, however, gives the worst villain performance in a Besson production since Joseph Gilgun’s unbearable turn in Lockout. Indeed an early tearful scene of desperation rivals Colin Farrell’s essaying of guilt in Cassandra’s Dream for the hammiest screen acting I’ve ever seen. Scott takes over the role of Stuart from 24 and Nikita mischief-maker Xander Berkeley, and it is impossible not to daydream about what Berkeley would have done.

‘It Ends Here’ is a tagline that sounds exhausted, and the franchise, despite an awful villain and disappointing action, falls over the line with its dignity just about intact.

2.5/5

July 24, 2013

The Wolverine 3-D

Walk the Line director James Mangold salvages Hugh Jackman’s signature role after 2009’s ho-hum outing by injecting some genuine tension and feeling.

the-wolverine-hugh-jackman-rila-fukushima1-600x472Mangold’s trademark disruptive flashbacks enliven an opening which unexpectedly drops us into a POW camp in Nagasaki just as the bomb drops. Logan, incarcerated in a deep pit to contain him, saves the life of noble young Japanese officer Yashida (Ken Yamamura). He awakens from this memory to find himself talking to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but this is a hallucination… Despite 2009’s teaser Japanese bar scene this film is defiantly actually a continuation of X-3; with Logan living peacefully alongside grizzlies in the Yukon, still traumatised by his murder of Dark Phoenix. Forced by his sense of justice into a confrontation in a bar he is unexpectedly assisted by petite samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an emissary of the dying Yashida (now played by Hal Yamanouchi). Logan arrives in Japan to find Yashida wants to capture Logan’s healing power for himself. Can Logan fight the Yakuza as a mere mortal…?

Wolverine’s repeated clashes with Sabretooth in the last instalment were ridiculous as they couldn’t kill each other. By contrast the moment here when Logan first gets a shotgun blast and staggers back in agony rather than taking it in his stride takes the breath away. The initially too busy script by Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0) and Scott Frank (The Lookout, Minority Report) layers family power struggles and mutant plots. Yashida’s son and heir Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada, Emily’s mentor in Revenge) is insistent that his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) marry the justice minister, rather than her true love Black Hand ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee), for Shingen’s political advancement. Yashida though wants his granddaughter as his corporate successor, and has instructed Harada to protect her from the Yakuza, while his mutant biochemist Viper (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova in increasingly outrageous costumes) works on crippling Logan, and furthering her own agenda.

Mangold’s interesting casting of newcomers yields many very distinctive faces, with the instantly adorable Fukushima in particular shining as Logan’s self-proclaimed bodyguard. Visually the Yakuza assault on a funeral is impressively staged, especially in following Harada and his lethal arching along rooftops as he protects Logan and Mariko. The Wolverine’s highlight is a brawl atop a speeding bullet train as a wounded Logan strategically leaps to avoid dying by signal lights and scaffolding, while trying to also take out Yakuza assassins. Thereafter all momentum is lost for a second act in which Logan and Mariko fall in love at her remote cottage: a protracted sequence lifted from Elektra in which a lost assassin connects with someone and so girds themselves for the third act. The third act does deliver a tense medical sequence, a nicely choreographed samurai v mutant duel, and both wonderful imagery and visceral brutality at the snow-covered Black Mountain lair of the Viper. But you feel that Mangold is striving throughout for a level of emotional depth that the script simply lacks, and hasn’t noticed that Jackman is fed precious few good gags to deliver…

Mangold doesn’t quite deliver his gold standard, but silver Mangold is a substantial improvement on Wolverine; and the teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, following after Logan’s coming to terms with Jean’s death, bodes well for the franchise.

3/5

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

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